Arts Profile: Partridge Poems: Spoken word artist Taqralik Partridge
“So, what, you guys just found me on MySpace or something? Wow, I’m famous. Hold on a sec, the macaroni is about to explode.” Spoken word artist Taqralik Partridge is cooking dinner for her twins and has forgotten about our phone interview. If you were raising 11-year-old twins, working full time and creating the art that got you listed as one of the Montreal Mirror’s Noisemakers of 2007, you might forget the odd interview, too. She tells her kids to distract themselves, averts a pasta disaster and settles down to chat about her life and work.
What defines Partridge’s writing is her ability to tell stories deeply rooted in the rich dirt of everyday life. Her subjects aren’t mythical heroes or goddesses: the world they live in is both ordinary and highly charged. Her piece “Eskimo Chick” is both a heartfelt tribute to a friend and a sly poke at the clichés of girl culture. “Other girls have Louis Vuitton baggage and Calvin Klein pasts,” she chuckles in her performance, “but you and me, we got sealskin hopes and dreams.” Later in the piece, when she tells Eskimo Chick, “Your grandma must have been a hottie / and she got down and naughty / with some fine Inuk body,” her audience laughs and hoots in appreciation. In “My Mary,” she describes a woman who has endured violence and abuse at the hands of men and whose sexuality smoulders like a dormant volcano. There are no easy answers in her pieces; no cardboard cut-outs. Instead, Partridge uses her lyrical skills to evoke the complex lives of Inuit women and her own relationship with identity.
The child of an Inuk father and a white mother, Partridge was raised in Kuujjuaq, a village in northern Quebec. “Because I grew up in the north, I identify more with being Inuk. But I never had an Inuk woman in the house,” she says. “I feel like everything about Inuit women fascinates me because there’s that little bit of otherness, and they’re also me at the same time.”
A Montrealer for more than a decade (she currently works as director of communications at the Avataq Cultural Institute), Partridge can also attest to the tensions of life as an urban Inuk. “I’ve lived in the south for 12 years but I’ve always felt like an outsider,” she says. “It’s very strange to me how we can live and have two realities. I come from this place that’s vast and open and beautiful, but I live and work in this place that is constricted and full of so many things going on. I love Montreal and I love the city, and [yet] in many ways I feel like an outsider.”
Her work reflects this ambiguity in its refusal to choose one reality over another. She skims from choppy rhymes to barely breathed stories that are almost lullabies, then suddenly she’ll switch to traditional Inuit throat singing. She isn’t merging two worlds so much as keeping them in constant conversation.
Partridge has been writing all her life, but after she heard spoken-word artist Ian Kamau perform on K-OS’s track “Papercuts,” she finally had a name for what she wanted to do. “I heard this guy come on doing something that was sort of like rap, but not, and it totally seized me,” she says. “I Googled him and found out it was called spoken word, and I knew that was something I wanted to do.” Since then, Partridge has performed for a range of audiences. Sometimes she takes the stage with a DJ or her newly formed band, Descendants. Sometimes it’s just her subterranean voice and a microphone.
Spoken word — the style of performance poetry where the rhythm of the piece carries the words — is associated with beatnik cafés, not remote settlements with teenagers in pickup trucks hanging out in parking lots. Even hip-hop was entirely foreign to kids who, like Partridge, grew up in rural northern villages. “In the north, before the Internet, we didn’t have access to that kind of music. I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop — I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Iron Maiden,” she laughs. But Partridge makes the style work for her, negotiating the rocky terrain of rhythm and words. It would be a stretch to call her an MC — her pieces are slower, more lyrical and less beat-oriented. But she credits positive hip-hop for her inspiration. “The whole idea of people being downtrodden and having to get up and do something with themselves really appeals to me,” she says.
Writers often talk about the importance of listening to their inner voice. Sometimes, though, writing is more about getting that voice to shut up and let you work. “I was so worried for a long time about writing about where I come from,” Partridge says. “First of all, I thought that I didn’t have much to say or that I wasn’t the right person to say it; all these excuses of why I wouldn’t be good enough.” As a teenager, she wrote self-described bad poetry, the memory of which makes her shudder audibly over the phone. She was just an ordinary kid from Kuujjuak with everyday worries and hopes. But what she calls “an unstoppable urge to write” finally made her confront her demons and start producing serious work.
Partridge doesn’t shrink from heavy subjects like sexual abuse, violence or poverty. To her, they’re as much a part of reality as rush-hour traffic and big mitts in winter, and just as important to talk about. But sometimes the line between the personal and the universal gets blurry. “At first when I was writing I thought, ‘I’ll never show this to Inuit, because someone’s going to think it’s about her,’” she says. Partridge’s stories don’t plaster over the grittier side of the life she knows, and they don’t romanticize or pity their subjects. “I see Inuit women who are professionals, who have big fancy jobs,” she explains, “and then others who have social problems, or they’re dirt poor, but they’re good storytellers. It’s just a big mess that I love. It doesn’t really matter what her social status is or what successes she’s had, materially. I’m just totally in awe of Inuit women.”
You can hear Partridge’s work at www.myspace.com/taqralikpartridge..
Anna Leventhal lives in Montreal, where she hosts a radio show (Venus on CKUT 90.3 FM) and runs a zine library (Bibliograph/e). She is a seasoned contributor to Shameless.